Chief Den: Chosen by God

. . . before the foundation of the world


Word traveled like wildfire across the Ilaga valley. On Sunday, May 26, 1957, Chief Den planned to lead his Damal followers in burning their sacred ancestral charms. For centuries the Damals and their neighbors who lived in the rugged mountains of Netherlands New Guinea (now Papua, Indonesia) trusted everything in life to these charms and the appeasement of the evil spirits.

Learning the Language

Eight months earlier, two missionary men, Don Gibbons and Gordon Larson, had hiked into the Ilaga Valley. For almost three years previously, the men had explored, been raided and were turned back time and again in their efforts to bring the gospel to the Damal and Dani tribesmen—people still living in the Stone Age who believed they were the only flesh and blood beings on earth.

Once there, Gordon built his cabin in the Dani part of the valley, and Don chose the Damal area. Local people began to help the men build an airstrip so their wives and children could fly into the valley to join them.

Two days after the men arrived in the Ilaga, a teenage Damal greeted Don in Indonesian, the trade language used by the government. “My father, Chief Den, invites you to come to his village,” he said. Don was startled! He understood Indonesian but couldn’t speak a word of the local Damal language. They set off together.

As they walked, Don learned the boy, later named Sam, had just returned home after attending a distant government school for two years. Chief Den invited Don to build his house at the edge of his village. In return for some land, Don gave the chief a steel axe, a precious gift to people who used stone tools.

Don hired Sam as his language helper and began to mimic, memorize and use the words of the complicated Damal language. The Damals had no word for God. Using the verb “to make,” ungkate, and changing it to a noun, “the person who makes,” a new word was formed: “Ungkangam Me,” the Creator. Now Don could begin to teach the people about God.

The Damals had no concept of weeks or months or even years. Using his fingers to count as the Damals do, Don explained that every seventh day, work would stop on the airstrip so people could gather in Den’s village to hear stories of the Creator and His Son, Jesus. During the week, Don and Sam worked together translating the chosen Bible story. On Sunday, Don spoke it line by line in Indonesian and Sam repeated it in Damal. The numbers attending on Sunday grew each week.

Chief Den Decides

On my first Sunday in Ilaga, I (Don’s wife), joined 500 Damals in church. Fascinated, I watched as two men stood and sang a Damal chant telling the gospel in 20 short lines while the crowd sang a response after each line. Also, I observed that the people seated on the edges couldn’t hear Sam’s voice, so I encouraged Don to begin preaching his sermon directly in Damal. During the week, Don worked with Sam, writing the story and application out in Damal. With Don speaking on Sunday mornings, everyone could hear.

“You must make a choice,” Don said one Sunday. “Which path will you follow? The path of Jesus leads to heaven and eternal life. The other path, the path of Satan and spirit appeasement, which you Damals have always followed, leads to death and hell. You cannot walk on both paths at the same time, for they go in opposite directions.”

The people understood the challenge. Chief Den and other leaders came to Don with questions.

“If we destroy our sacred objects and follow this new path, who will protect us in war if enemies attack us?” they asked. “The Creator will,” Don answered. “God is stronger than your charms and the evil spirits.”

“Who will help us in sickness? Who will cause our gardens to grow?” Don replied by telling them Bible stories to confirm that God would supply all their needs.

Chief Den made his decision. He announced that the next Sunday he would burn his ancestral charms, breaking with the spirits. That morning 700 Damals came dancing and singing as they poured into the village courtyard. Dani warriors came, too, standing at attention around the crowd of Damals. Each Dani carried a spear he used only in close combat with an enemy. They opposed the burning and feared what the spirits might do to all of them.

Den laid firewood in crisscross fashion and built a structure in the center of the yard. The bonfire was ready to light. When everyone was seated, Don spoke. He explained again the decision the people needed to make. Every person who had decided to walk the “Jesus path” should stand and move near to the stack of firewood.

Before anyone moved, Den ran to his hut, got a fire brand and lit the bonfire. Men began to run shouting as they threw large bundles of charms into the blazing fire. Women tore charms from their arms and from around their necks, tossing them into the fire. Black smoke rose. The blazing fire turned to glowing coals and then to gray ashes. From these ashes God’s master plan arose.

The Torch Is Passed

Chief Den and the Ilaga Damals were at the epicenter of a people’s movement, a turning to God of tribal people that swept across the mountains of New Guinea. The Ilaga Damals trusted God and began to share their faith in other valleys to the north, south and west, first with other Damals, then with Ndugas and Monis. The Ilaga Danis watched God’s blessings shower on their Damal neighbors for 18 months before they made their decision to turn from spirit appeasement.

Dani believers then carried the torch to the east. The message was received by people of many tribes and languages, reaching distant areas where the C&MA and other mission groups were working. Although missionaries were in place building airstrips and learning languages, the people remained unresponsive until tribesmen from the Ilaga gave their testimonies. In the next 10 years, 100,000 people received the gospel.

My family continued to live with the Damals and learn their language. Soon a trained linguist joined us, and he developed the Damal alphabet and began translating the New Testament. Damals were taught to read. My husband and I established a four-year Bible school to train pastors for the churches that were springing up in villages everywhere.

The Way to Heaven

Why did Chief Den promote the missionary and his message? Don didn’t learn the answer until several years later. Den was born at the turn of the century—about 1900. His father was also a tribal chief, and both were keepers of spirit appeasement charms. These sacred objects were passed down from generation to generation.

Near the time of his death, Den’s father said to him, “Perhaps in your lifetime a being will come from the outside and give you the key to hai” (the Damal word for paradise). “This being will tell you the way to heaven.”

God in His eternal purpose had chosen Chief Den before Creation. God put the longing for heaven into the heart of Den’s father with the prophecy that someone would come to tell the Damals the way. It was also God who put Don in Den’s village with the support of all of you in The Christian and Missionary Alliance.

Adapted with permission from Where the Earth Ends by Alice Gibbons. To order, see the classified ads.

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